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'Les Miserables': Still Amazing After All These Years

Les Miserable at the Colonial Theater May 7-July 5, 1997 T: Green Line to Boylston

By Sarah A. Rodriguez

To most seasoned theatergoers, Les Miserables is the epitome of what musical theater should be. The music sends chills along the audience's spines, even before the curtain opens. The revolving stage created a new and exciting dimension never before witnessed in theater. The plot, with more drama and fewer degrees of separation than a year's worth of "Melrose Place," can pull tears from the most cruelly critical eyes observing the show. And as the musical enters its second decade, one can bet that gushing audiences will still be running to the theaters, singing the show's familiar songs all the way.

But one must also wonder if after 10 years of performances of Broadway and on tour the show is truly staying up to the standards it set for itself. With a touring production costing $4.2 million-one of the most expensive ever created-a good show is bound to be expected. Yet with an audience that has had a decade to learn every intricacy of the musical, can sheer budget size fill in for weaknesses in the cast? Or do the actors help prove that every penny of the show was well-spent?

To fully appreciate "Les Mis," one must be fairly familiar with the plot, which revolves around Jean Valjean (Gregory Calvin Stone), convict number 24601 in 19th-century France. After serving 19 years in jail for stealing bread for his starving family, he cannot find work, friends, or a place to sleep, until a kindly bishop (Michael Marra) takes him in, and publicly forgives him when Valjean steals his silver. Valjean is so moved that he decides to change his life around. Eight years later he is mayor and the owner of a factory, where a girl named Fantine (Lisa Capps) is thrown out because its discovered that she has an illegitimate child in another city. When she and Valjean meet again, she has sunk to whoring herself for money to buy her sick daughter medicine.

Although police inspector Javert (Todd Alan Johnson) is hot on his trail, Valjean stays with the dying Fantine in the hospital and decides to adopt her child as his own, rescuing the young Cosette (Danielle Raniere) from the clutches of the evil, greedy Thenardiers (J.P. Dougherty and Tregoeny Sheperd). Ten years later in Paris, a grown Cosette (Kate Fisher) falls in love with the student Marius (Rich Affannato), whom the Thenardiers' daughter eponine (Rona Figueroa) also secretly loves. Meanwhile, all Paris is one the brink of revolution, which breaks out with appropriate passion in Act II, bringing all the characters, especially Valjean, to their final, crucial test.

Although the sheer emotional force of the play makes criticism difficult, some gaping flaws are still evident. The greatest mistake in the entire show is the casting of Jean Valjean himself. Except in the stellar "Bring Him House", Stone cannot muster the vocal richness the part calls for. Most of the time his coarse, grainy singing voice makes one flinch. Considering the role is one of the most coveted of all time in musical theater, how such poor casting could have occurred is difficult to understand. Another disappointment is found in Sheperd, who plays Thenardier's female partner in crime. She certainly looks as horrible as she needs to, but she lacks the pure insensitive evil that drips from her worse half. In addition, the Colonial Theater's policy of seating latecomers even after the show has started makes enjoyment of the production difficult at times.

But overall, the cast is filled with fine performers and singers, the most notable and versatile being Thenardier himself. Rather than screaming melodramatically, Dougherty's Thenardier is so sublimely cold and slimy that he becomes believable and human--an incredible feat. Capps' delicate voice and fragile demeanor make her a perfect choice for the suffering Fantine. Fisher and Affannato, as Cosette and Marius, are adorable to watch and a delight to listen to. As the valiant revolutionary leader Enjolras, Brian Herriot perfectly captures the spirit and devotion that lives long after the red flag has fallen. Even the young Cosette and little street-urchin Gavroche, despite slightly nasal-sounding voices, add a charming element to the production.

However, Figueroa, as Eponine, remains by far the most three-dimensional and memorable character in the entire show. With a voice that rings with power and emotion few of the other actors are able to equal, Figueroa single-handedly creates the soul of the performance, only to be sorely missed after her death at the barricades. She deftly combines a street-smart savvy with the brokenheartedness of a woman in love, and becomes the most pitiable and beloved character to grace Les Miserables.

The orchestra, while still powerful enough to make most people cry, unfortunately falls short of expectations. Whether it is due to the Colonial's sound system or to the orchestra itself is debatable. Admittedly, the music, unlike that of "Tommy" or "Rent," relies more on synthesizers and orchestral instruments than it does on guitars and loud drums, so volume levels will be quite different. However, even in the most emotional scenes the orchestra is unable to balance itself, leaving listners feeling rather let down-except in the barricade scenes, when the ear-piercing decible of the French police left many audience members squirming in their seats.

Overall, however, Les Miserables is still an emotion-packed musical with a lot of talent and an astounding set. The revolving stage platform is quite possible the show's strongest point--it gives a depth and ease to scene changes rarely seen in theater. Like the revolving stage itself, "Les Mis" gave a new dimension to the genre of musical theater, and it continues to do so today. This production may not be perfect, but it still gives a fine show to its audiences. For all of its fans, fanatics, lovers and critics alike, the 10th Anniversary Tour of Les Miserables is a theater event not to be missed.

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